Since 2009 I have been writing a monthly column for the publication Living with Christ.
The column connects at least two scripture passages offered in the lectionary readings for the month and attempts to draw out a meaning for spiritual reflection. Past columns are presented here. They are listed chronologically and by title. Anyone interested in reading current columns may do so by subscribing to Living with Christ at www.livingwithchrist.us
AUGUST 2009—We Must Hear the Bread of Life
In chapter six of John’s gospel Jesus addresses the crowds and proclaims, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:34). What meaning can we derive from this bold assertion?
As Catholics we immediately associate the Bread of Life with our reception of Holy Communion. This understanding is explicitly expressed in the later verses of chapter six. In verses 52-56 Jesus emphasizes how we must “eat” his flesh. The Greek word used here for eating is a strong one. It stresses the action of actually chewing on something. Clearly the reception of the Eucharistic bread is being described.
But earlier in the chapter the Bread of Life carries a wider but no less profound sense. In verses 25-51 the Bread of Life is associated with Jesus teaching. The references Jesus makes to the manna which God provided in the wilderness draws upon a Jewish wisdom tradition. In that tradition the manna was understood as God’s word which is given to guide people’s lives. Verse 45 makes this association, “They shall all be taught by God.” In this part of the chapter, then, the Bread of Life is not what we chew but what we hear: the wisdom of God. Jesus is that wisdom. He is God’s Word.
It is important to recognize the two senses of the Bread of Life from chapter six of John’s gospel. These two senses mirror the action of our Eucharist. When we come to Mass we first hear the Bread of Life in the scriptural word which is proclaimed and preached. We then bless and receive the Eucharistic bread at the table of the Lord. The bread which is heard leads to the bread which is eaten. Both are necessary. Both are Christ to us. The wisdom of the bread we hear shows us God’s path. The nourishment from the bread we consume gives us the strength to walk it.
SEPTEMBER 2009—Let Your Works Show Your Faith
There are only a few times when the Letter of James is used in the three-year lectionary cycle. It would be a real loss, however, to overlook its message. James has perhaps the clearest voice in the New Testament. Its author is not caught up in theory or weighed down with speculation. James is about action, about doing the good works which conform to God’s will. The letter is unafraid to assert, “Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).
Martin Luther did not like James. He called it “a letter of straw.” But Luther misunderstood James’ message. He presumed that the strong emphasis on human works undercut the supremacy of God’s grace. Luther saw our works and God’s grace in opposition. James sees them as complimentary. The letter holds this perspective because it is steeped in the Jewish tradition which understands that following God’s law is not an effort to earn salvation but an expected response to God’s love. Salvation is a free gift. But we are expected to respond to it with good works.
James also draws upon the Jewish tradition in describing the works which God expects us to do. Jews believed that every member of society should have someone to stand up for them. Because the widow, the orphan, and other marginal members of the community had no one to champion their cause, God became their guardian. God says in Isaiah 3:15, “What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” Those who refuse to care for the poor must answer to God.
The Letter of James speaks this truth clearly. It insists that the poor are heirs of the kingdom (2:5) and warns about treating them shabbily (2:3). It decries choosing wealth over justice (5:4) and ignoring a brother or sister who is hungry (2:15). But most of all the author of James does not want us to debate or theorize over moral choices. He calls us to act, to let our works show our faith.
OCTOBER 2009—Discipleship Is God’s Gift
Discipleship is not easy. Mark explores this truth in one of the most powerful scenes of his gospel—10:17-30. The story is a tragedy. A young man runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. It is obvious from his running that he is enthusiastic and from his kneeling that he is deferential. He wants to be a disciple. When Jesus tells him to follow the commandments, the young man’s excitement grows. He has followed God’s decrees faithfully from his youth!
Jesus response to the young man is equally enthusiastic. Mark tells us that he looked upon the young man and “loved him” (Mark 10:21). This is the only place in all the synoptic gospels where we are told that Jesus loved anyone. Mark sets this scene up as a perfect encounter. But then comes the tragedy. When Jesus asks him to give up his possessions, the young man walks away. He had many possessions. How could a relationship with such promise fall so quickly apart? The suddenness is a part of Mark’s strategy. He wants to drive home how effectively an attachment on our part can preclude us from following Jesus.
The obstacle which derails us need not be material wealth. It can be pride in our accomplishments, a sense of unworthiness, competition with others, or a desire for our own comfort. Anything we value more than discipleship will undo discipleship. It can be discouraging to recognize how easily we can frustrate God’s call.
But Mark does not leave us in the tragedy. When the shocked disciples ask who then can be saved, Jesus answers that all things are possible with God (Mark 10:27). God’s power is so vast and God’s love is so deep that God can lead us beyond our worst inclinations to full discipleship. What we learn in this tragic tale is not simply that we can place obstacles before God’s call, but that God can overcome them. In the end all is grace. We know all too well how we can walk away from Jesus holding on to whatever we think is more important. But the gospel promises that God has the power to loosen our grip. If we ask, God will answer. God can make the impossible possible. Despite our attachments to what is less, God can give us the ability to claim what is best and to become true disciples.
NOVEMBER 2009—We Wait for a Kingdom of Justice
Cosmic upheaval characterizes many passages in the New Testament. Mark 13:24-32 tells us that the sun will be darkened and the stars will fall from the sky. Luke describes powerful signs which will shake the powers of heaven (Luke 21:25-28, 34-36). These dramatic portents are not intended to frighten us but to encourage us. They are a biblical way to describe God’s action of recreating the world. Luke assures us that when these signs begin to occur, we should stand up straight because our salvation is at hand (Luke 21:28).
At the center of the gospel is our belief that God is renewing all of creation through the resurrection of Jesus. We trust that when Jesus returns in glory, every evil will be destroyed and all that is opposed to God’s will be undone. The cosmic turmoil presented in the gospels indicates that God is tearing apart all that is wrong with our world and replacing it with a new creation of goodness. The readings this month, then, call us to hope and action. The hope is that God will be faithful in destroying the evil around us. The action is our response. We are called to cooperate in establishing the Kingdom of God.
The scene of the poor widow in Mark 12:38-44 amplifies this conviction. Jesus tells his disciples that the two small coins she placed in the temple treasury were worth more that the huge sums which the wealthy contributed, because her offering was all she had (Mark 12:43-44). Although it is common to understand Jesus’ words as praise for the widow’s generosity, it is also possible to interpret them as a lament. Jesus may be decrying her action, implying that the religious authorities may have manipulated this poor woman’s generosity to give away what she needed for herself. Seen from this perspective, the gospel asks us to lament with Jesus, recognizing the institutional forces of our own day which abuse the poor.
This one exploited widow, then, can serve as a focus for us. Her mistreatment stands as a symbol of what must change in our world. As long as the least among us are ignored or manipulated, God’s kingdom has not yet come. We must live in the hope that God will establish the kingdom. We must act to hasten its coming.
DECEMBER 2009—Luke’s Gospel: From Intimacy to Universal Proclamation
There is a particular characteristic Luke’s gospel which highlights the contrast between intimacy and universal proclamation.
Throughout his gospel and its companion volume, the Book of Acts, Luke frequently associates the Good News with great events and personages of the ancient world. In 2:1-14 Luke connects Jesus’ birth to the most important secular figure of the century: Augustus Caesar. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). In 3:1-6 Luke associates the appearance of John the Baptist with the rule of Tiberius Caesar, the governance of Pontius Pilate, and the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. Luke wants us to understand that the Good News of Jesus is not some small or marginal movement. Its scope and meaning can favorably hold its own against the greatest persons and events of its day. As Paul says in the Book of Acts during his defense before the governor Festus, the events of gospel are well known to the governor. None of them have been “done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). To Luke the proclamation of Jesus is not a side-issue or an interesting footnote. It stands at the center of world history.
In contrast to this universal proclamation, Luke presents some of the most intimate scenes in the New Testament. Only Luke tells of the announcement of the angel to Mary and her interior choice to become the mother of Jesus (1:26-38). Only this evangelist narrates the personal encounter between Mary and Elizabeth and their sisterly joy in the marvel of their pregnancies (1:39-56). Only in this gospel do we learn how Mary “treasured in her heart” the events of Jesus’ birth and his discovery in the temple (2:19, 51).
The contrast between intimacy and universal proclamation in Luke is not accidental. The evangelist wants us to understand that the gospel begins with a grace which moves our innermost soul. In that interior place we decide to believe and we commit our lives to God’s love. But that personal gift is not intended to remain a private treasure. The one who is so touched must reach out. The one who believes must proclaim God’s favor, serve those in need, and work for justice. God comes to us intimately so that we might become disciples. But our discipleship is intended to change the world.
JANUARY 2010—Being a Friend of God
We all seek to be in right relationship with the Lord, to be a friend of God. Yet closeness to God does not guarantee an easy life. In the midst of painful circumstances St. Theresa of Avila once complained in prayer to God saying, “Lord with the way you treat your friends, it is no wonder you have so few of them!” Jesus lived in the closest intimacy with his Father, yet his life ended in a gruesome and unjust death.
The gospel writers were well aware of Jesus’ violent end. Even as they proclaimed the good news of his resurrection, they found ways to acknowledge his crucifixion. Matthew’s story of the magi (2:1-12) not only provides the wondrous visit of Gentiles from the east to the Christ Child. It also anticipates his passion. The desire of Herod to destroy the child is an ominous foreshadowing of another political ruler, Pilate, who would sentence Jesus to the cross.
Jesus’ visit to Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30) is a kind of overture to Luke’s gospel. The scene introduces themes which will unfold in Jesus’ ministry and passion. It clearly asserts that Jesus is an agent, a friend of God. He will bring good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed (Luke 4:17-20). Yet Luke knows well that Jesus’ closeness to God did not save him from injustice and pain. The violent rage of those who desire to hurl Jesus off a cliff (Luke 4:28-29) is Luke’s way of anticipating the brutal methods of the Roman Empire which was willing to crucify the innocent.
The gospel writers have good news to tell. They call us into union and friendship with God. Yet they are not naïve. Evil remains in our world and will remain until the final victory of Christ on the last day. Until that time, closeness to the Lord does not assure a life without tears. We must acknowledge this difficult truth. When tragedy strikes, when we experience rejection, sickness, or loss, we should not conclude that we have taken the wrong path. Those who follow Christ can expect no easier way than his. The crosses of life which we must carry do not mean that God has forgotten us. This is a mystery that God’s friends understand.
FEBRUARY 2010—Christ’s Resurrection Is Only the Beginning
The heart of the gospel and the message of Easter can be found in Paul’s first letter to Corinth (15:12, 16-20). Some enthusiastic Corinthians were so excited about their present life in Christ that they decided that Christ’s resurrection was irrelevant. They already possessed all that they needed. Paul erupts in protest. He insists that Christ’s resurrection was only the beginning of what God was planning to do. He calls Christ “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” The image is an agricultural one. The first fruits are the first part of the harvest. First fruits, therefore, imply that there is more to come. Paul is saying that Jesus’ resurrection will lead to the resurrection of all of those who have died. This is good news, indeed, because Jews of Paul’s time understood that the general resurrection of the dead would accompany the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Christ’s resurrection meant that God’s Kingdom had begun.
Why the Kingdom of God was such good news is revealed in Luke 6:17, 20-26. Luke gives us his version of the beatitudes which proclaim that the hungry will be fed and the sorrowing will laugh. He is announcing that all that is wrong, all that is evil, will come to an end. We usually read Luke’s beatitudes as referring to our personal hungers and sorrows. They do refer to us, but Luke’s vision is larger. It points to the establishment of God’s Kingdom when every evil is destroyed, when God’s will is realized in everyone and every place.
The Corinthians were satisfied with what they had already. Paul reacts and tells them to enlarge their perspective. Jesus’ resurrection is part of a greater plan. We should never conclude that the gospel is just about us. The gospel goes beyond our personal joys and sorrows. As much as God cares for us, God will not rest until all that is wrong with our world is undone. Christ’s resurrection announces that the establishment of the Kingdom has begun. We are called to serve each other and bring the Kingdom to completion.
MARCH 2010—We Must Surrender to God’s Love
The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32) is perhaps the most complex and powerful of all of Jesus’ parables. Interpreters have long contended that the parable would be better named “The Parable of the Loving Father.” The title has merit because the character of the Father represents for us the unlimited love of God. But the parable strives to do more than present the love of God. It also attempts to describe our response. It accomplishes this through the characters of the two sons, and in this respect the response is a tragedy. Neither of the sons embraces the Father’s love.
We often presume that the younger son, the prodigal son, accepts the Father’s love. But a close reading of the text throws this contention into doubt. The son’s motive to return home is not love, or even repentance, but starvation. Even when he is lavishly forgiven and welcomed home, we are never told that he is thankful or that he understands his father’s love. The father’s embrace of his wayward son is powerfully presented. We never see the younger son hug back.
The elder son is no more responsive than his brother, no more able to claim his status as a beloved child. He complains to his father that he has worked like a slave for him, revealing how he sees himself. In a patriarchal culture it was demeaning to plead with an obstinate child. But this is exactly what the father does, and his action is just as humbling as welcoming home the prodigal. Exasperated, the father assures his son that all he has is his. But the elder son does not respond. We never find out whether he sets aside his objections and enters the feast.
The younger son breaks all the rules. The elder son keeps all the rules. But neither son accepts the father’s love. This parable reminds us that relationships are deeper than rules. God’s grace is greater than our sins or our merits. Why then do we keep God at arm’s length? Do we hold onto our faults and believe that we are unworthy? Do we hold onto our faithfulness and say that it is not enough? Neither is an excuse. God is loving us with a love beyond imagining, and we must surrender to it. We must set aside every doubt and pretext and claim our status as a beloved child of God.
HOLY WEEK 2010—The Glory and Danger of Holy Week
In this most holy week of the liturgical year, our readings are filled with the glory of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. But there is also danger in the texts we proclaim. A naïve reading of the accounts of Jesus’ passion can lead to the conclusion that the Jewish people were responsible for Jesus’ death.
The passion of John which we read on Good Friday (18:1—19:42) is a good example of this potential misunderstanding. In several passages, it is said that those who approach Pilate and call for Jesus’ death were “the Jews.” A moment’s reflection would prompt us to ask, “Which Jews?” Jesus was Jewish. So were all his disciples. The only way we can read the text sensibly is to conclude that when the gospel refers to “the Jews,” it has a subset of Jews in mind. When we explore who this subset might be, the passage offers a likely solution. Pilate’s audience is alternately described as “the Jews” and “the chief priests.” This implies that the subset of Jews who cooperated in Jesus’ death were the temple authorities.
This conclusion squares with history. Jesus died by crucifixion which was a Roman form of execution. There can be no doubt that Jesus was sentenced to death under Roman authority. We also know that historically Pilate forced the Jewish leadership to cooperate with his agenda to keep the Roman peace. This makes it likely that when John’s passion account speaks of “the Jews,” it is referring to the chief priests.
Without this historical background, listeners of the passion may falsely conclude that “the Jews” as a people crucified Jesus. This misunderstanding has fueled a Christian teaching of contempt for Jews over the centuries. In its fullest distortion it led to the claim that the Jews had “killed God.” It was one of the great achievements of the Second Vatican Council to declare that Catholics may not read the passion accounts in such a way as to conclude that all Jews were responsible for Jesus’ execution (Nostra Aetate, #4).
As we open our hearts this week to the love of God which is clearly shown in Christ’s passion, we must allow that love to influence our perception. Our scriptures do not charge the Jewish people with Jesus’ death. To ignore the danger of misunderstanding this historical fact is irresponsible. We must not allow our Easter message to become a source of injustice and pain to others.
APRIL 2010—The Apostle to the Apostles
It is impossible to celebrate Easter without Mary Magdalene. She is present in most Easter stories. She is mention more frequently in the New Testament than any other woman with the exception of Jesus’ mother.
Why was the person of Mary Magdalene so remembered by the early church? The suggestion that she was a repentant prostitute who was related to Jesus in a carnal manner—though attractive to Hollywood—cannot be credibly maintained. Her importance lies in another direction. Mary Magdalene is present in every gospel account of the empty tomb. Her constant presence indicates that Mary Magdalene was the first disciple to receive an appearance of the risen Lord. The importance of this role cannot be overstated. Christianity rests upon the truth of Christ’s resurrection, and our only access to this truth is through the witness of those who saw him. If Mary Magdalene was the first of these witnesses, then her status is high indeed.
Both Luke 24:1-12 and John 20:1-9 report that Mary saw the risen Christ and then went to tell the apostles. Both passages indicate that Mary’s witness was not well received. Luke reports that her story seemed an idle tale to the apostles and that they did not believe her. John informs us that when she announced that the tomb was empty, Peter ran to the tomb with another disciple but saw nothing. In time all the apostles would see the risen Lord. But it seems likely that the first appearance was to Mary Magdalene.
When Mary understood that despite the horror of the cross Christ had been raised up, she proclaimed that truth fearlessly. Even though the apostles held a higher status, even though her message was open to ridicule, Mary told Peter and the others, “I have seen the Lord.” That is why her name is remembered and why we must imitate her courage. Each of us has been shown an aspect of God’s love. Each of knows something that is true and valuable. Others need to hear it. Whether it is an insight, an opinion, a correction, or an affirmation, telling others is the call of a disciple. Hippolytus, a bishop of the third century, called Mary Magdalene “The Apostle to the Apostles.” We need apostles today. Our witness is still required. Mary Magdalene’s witness began the message of Easter. Our witness allows the good news of Easter to continue and grow.
MAY 2010—Tracing God’s Actions in the Holy Spirit
The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that the Holy Spirit is fully God. But the scriptures are less concerned about the Spirit’s essence and more focused on the Spirit’s action. In fact the scriptures speak of God’s Spirit when they describe God’s invisible action in the world. In both Hebrew and Greek the word which we translate as “spirit” indicates “a movement of air.” Thus “the Spirit of God” could correctly be translated “the wind of God” or “the breath of God.” This invisible movement of air is an inspired image for God’s unseen action among us.
How do the scriptures point to God’s action? The early apostles call upon the Spirit to help them decide the correct relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Christ (Acts 15:1-2, 22-29). When we make crucial and prayerful decisions in our lives, we must also believe God’s Spirit is guiding us. On Pentecost Jews from all nations hear Peter’s words despite their different languages (Acts 2:1-11). When divisions are healed in our relationships or in our world, we believe that God’s Spirit is drawing us together. The risen Christ assures his disciples that the Spirit will bring forgiveness (John 20:19-23). When after failure and sin we come to again claim God’s love, we understand that God’s Spirit is moving within us.
The presence of God is vast and varied. That is why we can find so many different images of the Spirit. Jesus draws from the legal sphere to describe the Spirit as a “Paraclete” or “Advocate” (John 14:23-29). He is using the image of a prosecuting attorney who will lead the disciples against the evils of the world. An old Celtic tradition builds upon this image, presenting the Holy Spirit as a goose. A goose honks loudly and forcibly inserts itself into its surroundings. When we sense God’s presence as a dramatic force, grabbing us by the neck and impelling us in directions we would rather avoid, we should know that the Spirit is alive within us. We cannot limit the scope of God’s action. God’s Spirit can often be healing, supporting and consoling. But the Spirit is also the wild goose who honks to wake us from our complacency and shoves us forward to build the kingdom of God.
JUNE 2010—The Antidote for Sin is Love
Three scripture readings create a a powerful interplay between sin and love. We all know that sin is an offense against God’s will. Like King David we realize that when we sin, we must call out for God’s forgiveness (2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13). Realizing the evil of sin, we strive to avoid it. In doing this we often assume that the force which prevents sin is our own will power. Our personal efforts are certainly essential to a virtuous life. But the scriptures suggest another strategy. If we wish to avoid sin, we must give and receive love.
In Galatians 5:1, 13-18 Paul argues that we can avoid the slavery of sin by our commitment to love each other. He asserts that summary of the entire law is to love your neighbor as yourself. The apostle is convinced that the most successful way to avoid sinning is to engage in service. To do what is right is the best approach to avoid what is wrong. In giving love we forestall falling into sin.
Luke offers an even deeper connection through a small parable in 7:36-50. Jesus poses a question to the Pharisee Simon. If a creditor were to forgive the debt of two people and one owed him ten times more than the other, which one would love him more? Simon rightly answers that the one who is forgiven more will love more. The parable thus establishes a positive relationship between the amount of sin and the amount of love. The parable does not encourage sinfulness, but it asserts that no one has more reason to love God than the sinner. No one can know the depths of God’s love better than the one who sins the most. Forgiven adulterers, thieves, slanderers, and bigots are the ones who truly know the immensity of God’s goodness.
These scriptures ask us shift our focus from sin to love. If we truly wish to live a virtuous life, the positive is more powerful than the negative. Giving our love to others and accepting God’s love for us is the best way to live a holy life. And in the paradox which is typical of the gospel, even if we do sin—and sin greatly—our hope is not destroyed. God’s loving forgiveness of our sin only provides more love to accept. That love then gives us more power to avoid offending God in the future. Love is the best antidote for sin.
JULY 2010—Waiting for God’s Salvation
The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) ranks among the greatest parables of the New Testament. It is found only in Luke’s gospel, where it is used to answer the fundamental question posed by a lawyer, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The meaning of this parable is usually found in the action of the Samaritan. His decision to help someone in need wins the approval of Jesus and indicates that the way to eternal life is through love of one’s neighbor. Such an interpretation of the parable is valid and indisputable. But the genius of parables is that they open themselves to more than one meaning. The entire message of the parable shifts when we choose to identify not with the Samaritan but with the person who was attacked by the robbers. The Samaritan is the giver. The person attacked is the receiver. When we focus on the person in need, the parable no longer describes how we are agents of salvation to others but how God sends salvation to us.
This approach to the parable invites us to assume the position of the person left half-dead in the ditch. We wait for salvation. We are hopeful as the priest and Levite, good people who we admire, approach us. But they pass us by. Discouraged, we continue to wait. But then the unthinkable happens. A Samaritan, someone we hate and who is opposed to our people, comes towards us. Contrary to our every expectation and perhaps even our wishes, he stops and saves us! We are rescued, but not in a way we would anticipate or desire.
The parable tells us that salvation seldom comes on our own terms. We all seek wisdom, pray for growth, and yearn for life. But often these gifts materialize in ways we would rather avoid. We learn through a painful divorce. We grow through a struggle with grief or depression. We find life through the care of our enemy. We believe God will be faithful. Therefore, we trust that salvation is coming down the road. But we cannot control whom God may send to bring it. The mystery of God’s grace is that we cannot direct it, only accept it. Our way to salvation must be the way of openness and trust.
The lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The parable answers, “Find your place in the ditch and wait.”
AUGUST 2010—The Humble Know the Power of Love
The Bible consistently asserts that the poor, the weak, the marginalized, and the humble have a special place in God’s heart. No gospel writer understands this truth more clearly than Luke. He begins Jesus’ ministry at Nazareth, where Jesus describes his mission to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). He routinely presents us with scenes in which those who are without prestige understand the wonder of God’s love.
Luke 1:39-56 provides a perfect rendering of this truth. In the perspective of the time, it would be difficult to imagine a more insignificant scene than this meeting of two pregnant women. The patriarchal power structure of the ancient world would not deem Mary’s visit to Elizabeth worthy of narration. But from Luke’s perspective, this visit carries universal significance. One of these powerless women bears the Messiah in her womb and the other carries the messenger who will announce his coming. These two, more than any others, perceive the mystery of God. Mary gives voice to the way God’s love is revealed to the weak: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts . . . and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:51-52).
Luke reinforces this perspective in other passages of his gospel. In 13:22-30 he tells us that the last will be first and the first last. In 14:1, 7-14 we learn that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Humility is required for a place in God’s kingdom. Those who are proud in their own accomplishments will never understand God’s plan. Therefore, even as we are satisfied with our relationships, talents, and successes, we must always remember that all we have is only possible because a good God has blessed us. And whenever we confront our weakness, we must not become discouraged. Fragility resulting from sickness, rejection, loss, or failure does not exclude us from God’s love but draws us more fully into it. When we claim our powerlessness, we own a true humility. In our inadequacies we can recognize the faithful presence of God.
Jesus’ great commandment is that we must love God with all our heart. Love truly is the only way to God. But only the humble are able to find and follow it.
SEPTEMBER 2010—Searching as God Searches
Two parables in Luke’s gospel are valuable when read together. One tells us something important about God. The other presents a truth which is essential for us. The Parable of the Woman and the Lost Coin (Luke 15:1-32) describes the action of God. A woman loses a single coin. She stops everything and searches carefully until she finds it. The parable identifies the coin as a drachma. It was not very valuable and could purchase very little. Why then would the woman make such an effort to locate it?
An explanation can be provided by referring to a custom in Arab Palestine. On her wedding day a woman would wear a headdress decorated with coins. Much like a wedding ring today, these coins were a sign of the love and commitment of marriage. Therefore, the woman’s search in the parable was not motivated by the inherent value of the coin but by what the coin meant to her.
So it is with God. God searches for us not because of the great value we have in ourselves but because of what we mean to God. We should not, then, judge ourselves or others based only upon talents or accomplishments. The worth of each person is located in God’s free choice to consider him or her a beloved child.
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) shows a consequence of God’s unique way of loving. In this parable a rich man is punished after his death because of his relationship to a blind beggar, Lazarus. The rich man’s fault was not one of action but awareness. He never rebuffed Lazarus nor did he ignore him. He did not even know him. Even though the blind beggar lay “at his gate,” the rich man continued to feast every day oblivious to Lazarus’ hunger.
Normally ignorance is an excuse. But not in this parable. It insists that we have a duty to know the needs of the poor and to help them. If God cares for every person, then no person is beyond our concern. We cannot, of course, meet the needs of everyone we see. But we must see. We are called to imitate the active commitment of the woman searching for her coin. Our God searches to save every person. We cannot absolve ourselves from the responsibility of seeing and searching in the same way.
OCTOBER 2010—Zacchaeus: Repentance or Vindication?
The riches of the scriptures are never exhausted. A new detail or a fresh angle will often reveal another aspect of God’s truth. A single word in the famous story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) demonstrates this clearly.
The word I have in mind is didōmi. It is a form of the Greek word which means “to give.” You will hear it in Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give (didōmi) to the poor.” When we hear didōmi this way, it supports a very plausible reading of the story: Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, welcomes Jesus to his house. The people of the city object because they see Zacchaeus as a sinner. [Tax collectors cooperated with the Romans and often used their position to cheat others and enrich themselves.] Zacchaeus, however, repents of his crooked ways and promises that from now on he “will give” half of his possessions to the poor.
In this reading, the Zacchaeus story is a powerful narrative of repentance. But everything shifts when we look at didōmi differently. Although most of our translations render the verb in the future tense (“I will give”), the form is actually present (“I give”). In Greek a present form can carry a future sense if the context warrants it. Most translators translate didōmi as “I will give,” because they presume that this story is one of repentance and that Zacchaeus is changing his behavior.
But if we read didōmi in its literal present sense, another meaning of the story emerges. Now Zacchaeus is not promising Jesus that he “will give” half of his possessions in the future. He is insisting that his regular practice has been to “give” half of his possessions away. Now Zacchaeus is not repenting of his past actions but defending himself against the prejudice of the crowd which judges him on his profession rather than his moral character. Now Jesus’ acceptance of Zacchaeus is not welcoming a contrite sinner but vindicating a good person whom society has marginalized.
Both interpretations work. If you come to the story aware of your sinfulness and seeking the forgiveness of the Lord, the repentant Zacchaeus is your model. If, on the other hand, you recognize in yourself a prejudice against those who our society demeans, this story will remind you that goodness can exist in those who are unpopular and that Jesus stands with them.
NOVEMBER 2010—Where Salvation Is Found
Luke 23:35-43 is one of the most powerful scenes in his gospel. All four gospels speak of Jesus being crucified with two other Jews. But only Luke provides us with the story of the Good Thief. The passage is noteworthy for its desperation, its intimacy, and its view of salvation.
The desperation of the good thief is obvious. He, like Jesus, is literally in his last minutes of life. He probably thinks of past opportunities which, if taken, might have changed his destiny and avoided this brutal execution. But now his death is certain, and his hope is gone. What choices can he make as life slips away? He only sees one possibility. It is a long shot, but he takes it. He asks the crucified man next to him to bless him: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The request is stunning in its intimacy. This is the only place in the gospels where Jesus is addressed by his personal name without any additional title. Only desperation and a wild courage could explain such a daring approach.
Jesus’ response is even more astounding. With a graciousness beyond any expectation, he promises the man union with him in Paradise. Luke, from the beginning of his gospel, continually asserts God’s power to save the lowly and forgotten. You can hear it clearly in Mary’s Magnificat. You can see it in the surprised faces of the prodigal son and the man rescued by a Samaritan. You can detect it the joy of Lazarus as he rests in Abraham’s bosom and in the wonder of the slave of the high priest whose severed ear has been healed by the man he came to arrest. But no one could have been more unprepared than this crucified criminal to discover that he—the most unlikely of all candidates—would be the first to share eternal union with Christ.
In this passage Luke encapsulates his view of salvation. It does not depend on our goodness, only on God’s gracious love. In fact, God comes first to those who are desperate and lost. Therefore, it is never too late. Whatever we have done, whatever doubt, discouragement, or pain we must face, hope is close at hand. We must learn what the good thief discovered. Our salvation is near.
He is hanging on the cross next to us.
DECEMBER 2010—God in the Margins and Foreign Places
In the beginning of Matthew’s infancy narrative (1:18-24) the actual birth of Jesus is mentioned in six words found within a subordinate clause: “until she had borne a son.” Matthew devotes the majority his narration not to the main event of Jesus’ birth but to all the unusual circumstances within Jesus’ family: Mary’s inexplicable pregnancy and Joseph’s struggle to deal with it.
Matthew’s approach is instructive to us during the holiday season. It calls us to look for God in the margins of our activities. Throughout this month we will gather with family and friends. Our focus will tend to be on the meals, gifts, and customs of the season. But the people with whom we gather will bring with them their own issues, and many of them will be difficult. Sickness, hurt, economic hardship, or grief may well be gathered in our homes. God is calling us to be attentive to such burdens. Like Matthew our interest should not only center on Jesus’ birth but on all the family issues which lie at the periphery of our celebrations.
The end of Matthew’s infancy narrative (2:13-15, 19-23) enlarges this truth. An angel tells Joseph, who is in Egypt, to return to the land of Israel. Joseph obeys but is afraid to return to Bethlehem. So he settles in Nazareth. Joseph comes home, but not to the home he had before.
When we face disruptions in our lives, we yearn for “things to get back to normal.” We want to return to the way things were. We endure the medical treatment, survive the divorce, outlive the rejection. But as we seek to return to the place we were forced to leave, we discover that time has passed. People are missing. We have changed. Things may in time return to a set routine, but not to the routine we once knew.
Like Joseph we must trust that God will be found in strange and uncomfortable places. Even when circumstances are new and difficult, we trust that they are a part of God’s plan. The places we must leave are seldom recoverable. But God can be found in new places. And when God is with us, we can always find a home.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth assures every believer that God is not restricted to main events or routine places. God is also present in the margins and foreign parts of our lives.
JANUARY 2011—A Call to Integrity and Resistance
The story of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) shares striking similarities with the story of Balaam in the Book of Numbers (chapters 22-24). There an evil king named Balak desires to prevent Moses and the Israelites from settling in the promised land. So he calls upon Balaam, who is a seer, to curse Israel. Yet every time Balaam tries to open his mouth against Israel, only blessings come forth.
Like Balaam, the Magi are seers, experts in dreams and secret arts. Moreover, both Balaam and the Magi come from the East and make use of a star. But the most important connection between these two stories is that both Balaam and the Magi frustrate the evil plans of a king. Balaam foils the plan of Balak to harm Israel. The Magi frustrate the plan of Herod to destroy the Christ child.
In this light, the story of the Magi emerges as a lesson of integrity and resistance. The political power of Herod was enormous, and he was known to use it ruthlessly. Yet despite Herod’s clear command, the Magi find the courage to return to their own country without informing him of Jesus’ location. They choose to follow the righteous directions of God rather than the evil desires of Herod.
We must find a similar courage as we face the moral issues in our world. Political and corporate institutions have a power which is overwhelming. When we recognize injustice in their policies and directives, it can be easy to go along without voicing our objections or risking our well being. But, St. Paul tells us that God uses the foolish in the world to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong (1 Cor 3:16-23). Therefore, despite our lack of influence and power, we must not be afraid to act and speak for what we know is just.
When we understand that God is asking us to stand up for the dignity of children, the poor, the elderly, or those who wish to immigrate to our country, we cannot ignore the call. When we have an opportunity to oppose the spread of violence, prejudice, or greed, we must not hold back because of the forces which may be arrayed against us. The Magi’s choice to disregard Herod’s command is an example of true courage. It shows us that those who would worship Christ must be willing to do what is right.
FEBRUARY 2011—Living Beyond the Minimum
There is a famous section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which contain a set of “antitheses,” so-called because they contrast the teaching of Jesus with a previous position. They are arguably the most misunderstood verses in Matthew’s gospel. The most frequent way to interpret the antitheses is to imagine Jesus setting aside the Jewish Law and replacing it with a new law. But such an understanding of the antitheses is untenable, if we carefully read the text.
In Matthew 5:17-37 we hear that Jesus has no intention of setting the Jewish Law aside. He has come “not to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17). “Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (5:18). Clearly Jesus accepts the authority of the Law.
How then are we to understand “the antitheses”? First, we must be clear to what Jesus is contrasting his teaching. It is often presumed that when Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said,” he is referring to what was said in the Jewish Law. But this is not always the case. When Jesus tells us that “it was said” to love your neighbor and hate your enemy (Matt 5:38-48) he cannot be quoting the Jewish Law, because there is no place within it which directs that we should hate our enemies. In fact, we can find places in the Law which say that foreigners and enemies should be treated with respect (Exod 23:4-5; Prov 25:21-22). In this antithesis, then, Jesus is contrasting his teaching not to the Law but to the common human practice of hatred.
Second, we must understand that when Jesus does refer to the Law, he does not reject its authority. What he does is call his disciples to do more than the Law requires. If murder is wrong, then Jesus’ disciples must avoid anger which is the root of murder and lust which is the root of adultery. To avoid swearing falsely, his disciples should not swear at all. Nor should they be satisfied with strict justice (an eye for an eye) but avoid every violent reaction.
We who follow Jesus must not be satisfied with the minimum response. We should not ask how much must I give, love, or forgive but how much can I give, love, or forgive. As disciples of Jesus we are to accept the guidance of the Law. But we are called do more than even the gracious Law of God requires.
MARCH 2011—Faith Unfolds as a Gift
People come to faith in varied ways. Sometimes the decision to believe is immediate and strong. Paul tells us in Romans (4:13, 16-18, 22) that Abraham believed in God’s promise and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. In Luke 1:26-38 we see Mary, after one brief question, entrust herself completely to God’s request.
But sometimes faith unfolds through time and experience. No New Testament writer captures this dimension of faith more forcibly than the evangelist John. In 4:5-42 we hear the powerful encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. John allows us to see the woman’s faith grow. Beginning with suspicion and ignorance, it develops into a robust expression of Jesus’ true mission.
The progress of the woman’s faith can be traced by noting how she addresses Jesus. When they first meet at Jacob’s well, she calls him “a Jew” (4:9). The word not only expresses a surface understanding but also points to the ongoing tensions between Jews and Samaritans. This initial address is not a promising beginning. But as they talk, the woman becomes intrigued and takes a positive step by accepting Jesus as a “giver of water” (4:15). Although her openness is tentative and seems limited only to obtaining water from the well, it moves her forward. As the conversation continues and Jesus reveals intimacies of her life to her, the woman sees more. She recognizes Jesus as “a prophet” (4:19). Now for the first time she knows Jesus as an agent of God. After they discuss true worship and she returns to her village, she announces to her neighbors the possibility that Jesus is “the Messiah” (4:29). As Jesus teaches in their village for two days, the woman together with her neighbors reach faith’s fullness. They proclaim Jesus as “the Savior of the world” (4:42). Gradually, through conversation and reflection, faith has become complete.
Not all faith emerges in an instant. Our journey of faith may take time. It may pass through detours and dead ends. It may be ladened with suspicion and doubt. Yet faith can grow. If we, like the Samaritan woman, keep talking and listening, we can move forward. And each step is reason for joy. For as faith unfolds, it is God leading us, prodding us with patience and grace.
APRIL 2011—Facing Death with Faith and Tears
The scriptures contain many perspectives on Jesus’ death. In Matthew 27:46 Jesus calls out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At the empty tomb the women come looking for Jesus who was crucified (Matt 28:5). Peter proclaims that the Risen One was put to death by being hung on a tree (Acts 10:39).
There is no doubt that the death of Jesus is a central focus of our faith. But the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-45 does not address Jesus’ death but our own. In his typical style, the evangelist John surrounds this miracle with dialogue and theology, so that the miracle becomes a vehicle for Christian reflection on the experience of death.
John achieves his purpose through the two sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. They are each given a scene with Jesus. When Jesus arrives at Bethany, Martha is the first to meet him. Filled with sorrow at the death of her brother, she laments, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Jesus moves beyond Martha’s sorrow and assures her that he is the resurrection and the life. Martha accepts Jesus’ proclamation and asserts that he is the Messiah and the Son of God. Martha clearly represents Christian faith.
Then Martha calls her sister who has her own scene with Jesus. Mary begins with the same lament as Martha, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). But then the dialogue ends, for Mary begins to weep. Unlike his interaction with Martha, Jesus does not call Mary to faith but begins to weep with her.
Martha and Mary stand for two distinct aspects of death: faith and sorrow. When we face the loss of a loved one, we are both of these sisters. Our faith gives us hope in eternal life. Our sorrow consumes us. Our belief and our pain may seem to contradict one another. But Jesus accepts both of our responses just as he accepted both Martha and Mary. A Christian faces death with belief and sadness. And we do not face death alone. Jesus both calls us to faith in him and joins us in our tears.
HOLY WEEK 2011—Earthquakes and Easter
There is a connection between Matthew’s Passion Account (26:14—27:66) and his resurrection account (28:1-10). They share between them a unique detail which can be used as an entry into the Paschal Mystery.
As Matthew relates the death of Jesus, he adds something which is in no other gospel: an earthquake. “The earth shook, and the rocks were split” (27:51). In a similar way when he describes Easter morning, the earthquake is there again (28:2). In Matthew the scenes of Jesus’ death and resurrection are tied together by earthquakes. What is he trying to tell us?
Throughout the Hebrew Bible earthquakes and the splitting of rocks are a sign of God’s activity in the world. When God exercises judgment and saving power, God’s might is reflected in the shaking of the earth. In the Song of Deborah, God is described as fighting for Israel. As God approaches, “the earth trembled” (Judg 5:4). As God comes to answer David’s prayer, “the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations of the earth trembled and quaked” (2 Sam 22:8).
Matthew’s earthquakes emphasize God’s powerful presence in his story. They also tie together in a unique way the cross and the empty tomb. To make this connection even clearer, Matthew employs a technique often used by modern filmmakers: a flash forward. After the earthquake at the cross, Matthew disrupts the chronology of his story with the following two sentences: “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (27:52-53). Even as Jesus hangs lifeless on the cross, Matthew cannot wait. He flashes forward to the resurrection, telling us that not only will Jesus be raised but we will be raised with him.
Matthew does more than report historical facts to us. He proclaims the spiritual message of Easter. He calls us to understand our suffering in a new way. Even as we cope with loss, sickness, distress and death, we know that the cross is not the end. In the midst of our pain, our faith flashes forward to resurrection. When you hear the earthquakes this Holy Week, understand their meaning. Feel the rumble. It proclaims that even in the shadow of death God is leading us to life and joy.
MAY 2011—Easter Faith through Word and Welcome
The resurrection of Jesus stands at the center of the Christian Gospel. But faith is required to accept its truth. No one of us has seen our risen Lord. There is no scientific data which we can use to verify that he has been glorified and now reigns at the right hand of God. Faith, then, does not function on the basis of observable proof. At times it may seem to float without a foundation. The evangelists recognize this difficulty and address it.
John 20:19-31 is the story of Doubting Thomas. John’s Gospel was written at the end of the first century, and there is no reason to believe that anyone in its original audience had seen the risen Christ. Therefore, the faith of John’s community was dependent on the testimony of those who had seen him. This is our experience as well. We have not seen Jesus. We are asked to believe through the witness of our scripture and tradition. Like the apostles’ proclamation to Thomas, they call to us, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas, of course, did not believe through the testimony of others. He had to see and touch Jesus. The story ends by warning us that we cannot expect to repeat his experience: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” If we are to have faith in the resurrection, it is not by seeing but by hearing the word of others and accepting it.
The Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35) offers another basis for faith. In this powerful narrative, two disciples come to know Jesus through their hospitality to a stranger. Without knowing he was Jesus, they say to the man they had met on the road, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening.” At the meal they share with this traveler, their eyes are opened and they come to faith in the risen Lord. Our faith is confirmed in the same way. When welcome the stranger or feed the hungry or visit the sick, we open our hearts to Christ who verifies his risen presence in our midst.
Faith cannot be proven. But the truth of Jesus’ resurrection can be accepted when we receive the word of others who believe and when we welcome others as we would welcome Christ himself.
JUNE 2011—A Call to Use My Fire
The scriptures are filled with examples of people who have been called by God. In Matthew 16:13-19 Jesus commissions Peter to be the rock on which the Church will be built. In Galatians 1:11-20 Paul describes his call to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. in Luke 1:5-17 the angel tells Zechariah that his son will be called to prepare a people for the Lord.
It is easy for us to be intimidated when we are surrounded by such giants of God’s service. But Luke’s description of the scene at Pentecost in Acts 2:1-11 reminds us that not only Peter, Paul, and John are called. We are as well.
Luke makes his point in the midst of a carefully constructed drama. The fire of God’s Spirit appears along with a sudden windy noise and the miracle of a language which all can understand. But it is the manner in which the fire is described that is important. It does not roll in as a giant ball or encircle the disciples as a burning fence. The fire was “divided” into tongues which “rested on each of them.” Luke is telling us that the gift of the Spirit comes to each disciple as an individual. This personal gift of the Spirit does not, of course, negate the communal nature of the Church. Yet Luke is insisting that being Church is not like making sausage, where each particular talent and skill is ground together with every other into a indistinguishable mix. The gift of each individual is important in spreading God’s reign. God calls us each to serve through the gifts we have received.
In 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13, Paul reminds us that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Therefore, our gift is necessary, and we should not disqualify it through comparison with the gifts of others. We can always find someone who is more prayerful, more generous, or more insightful than we are. But the Church is impoverished when we refuse to use the gift we have been given. Luke’s description of Pentecost does not simply report an event of the past. It shows us how to build the Church today. If the gospel is to cover the earth, we must each find our particular fire and use it.
JULY 2011—Abundance and Waste
The multiplication of the loaves and fishes is the only miracle from Jesus’ ministry which is reported in all four gospels. Matthew’s version of the story is found in 14:13-21. The miracle is about abundance. Not only is a great multitude fed with five loaves and two fish, but the left over pieces fill twelve baskets. This miracle tells us that God is not stingy. God’s love is infinite. We live in an abundance of grace.
Believing in such abundance, however, is difficult, because we often doubt that there will be enough resources to accomplish God’s work. This is why we must listen carefully to the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23). We are sowers and the seed represents our efforts to live the gospel. It is significant that in the parable most of the seed is wasted. Of the four verses which describe the fate of the seed, only one speaks of seed producing a harvest. A 75% failure rate is rather shocking, but we are challenged to accept it. The parable asserts that the kingdom of God will not be found by those who are afraid to waste—to waste their time, energy, and love.
The parable does not encourage us to be careless or inefficient. But it reminds us that waste cannot be eliminated in God’s work. Those of us who brood over efforts we have made with no results, time we gave to dreams which never materialized, and love we invested in relationships which never lasted will understand little of sowing and even less of the kingdom of God. God’s reign is fostered not by carefulness but by openhandedness, not by scrupulously measuring but by generously giving, not by the small gesture of micro-management but by the large motion which allows seed to fly from our hands and to land where it will.
If we give freely and love generously, much of our effort will be wasted. But the few things which work will more than compensate for our losses. A few plans will surprise us with their success. A few dreams will live to see the light of morning. A few relationships will last a lifetime. And their impact will overwhelm us. The parable promises us that the seed which grows will produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. We will indeed experience abundance, but we must waste to reach it.
AUGUST 2011—Following Jesus with “Little Faith”
Matthew uses a number of favorite phrases which betray his approach to the Christian life. One these is found in 14:22-33 when Peter tries to walk on the water, doubts, and then begins to sink. As Jesus pulls him up out of the waves, he says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (14:31). Describing Peter’s situation as one of “little faith” is certainly a rebuke, but it is a gentle one. It describes a situation in which real faith is present, but doubt is as well—a mixed condition in which belief and weakness coincide.
Matthew frequently describes Jesus’ disciples as those of “little faith.” Their faith is little when Jesus teaches them about the lilies of the field (6:30) and the mustard seed (17:20), when they cannot understand the miracle of the loaves and fishes (16:8), and when Jesus calms the sea (8:26). The gospel does not suggests that this incomplete faith will be overcome. In Matthew disciples never arrive at “great faith” or “perfect faith.” Doubts and imperfections continue to characterize the life of every believer.
Peter displays little faith dramatically. In Matthew 16:13-20 Jesus will describe Peter’s faith as a solid rock foundation which will serve the community. In Greek, Peter’s name is the same word as “rock.” Matthew’s readers would hear the connection: “You are Peter [Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church” (16:18). But such solid faith does not fully describe Peter. In 16:21-27 Jesus will rebuke Peter for not accepting the message of the cross saying, “you are a stumbling block to me” (16:23). This image reflects a passage of Isaiah which describes a rock or stone over which the inhabitants of Jerusalem will stumble and fall (Isa 8:14-15). The “rock” Peter is both a firm foundation and a stumbling stone. Like the rest of the disciples who are “of little faith,” Peter is both a real believer and also one prone to weakness and doubt.
Matthew is suggesting that our faith is much like Peter’s. We really believe, but we never believe completely. Although our flaws like Peter’s can cause others to stumble and fall, our faith, if it is real, can provide a foundation upon which the belief of others can stand. Our faith is seldom great and never perfect, but God still calls us to change the world. In that mission, our little faith will have to do.
SEPTEMBER 2011—Bridging the Ideal and the Real
The demands of discipleship are high. Paul tells us that we should owe no one anything, except to love one another (Romans 13:8-10). He is echoing the Great Commandment of Jesus: we should love God with all our heart and our neighbor as our self (Matthew 22:34-40). This is a beautiful summation of the entire Law. It is a high ideal. It is doggedly difficult to meet. Matthew 18:15-20 presents us with an elaborate procedure used by Matthew’s community to deal with a brother or sister who sins against another. The need to have such concrete steps to facilitate forgiveness demonstrates that failing at love was characteristic of the Church from its earliest days.
How can we deal with such failures? Some encouragement can be found in the small parable of the two sons (Matt 21:28-32). The father asks his two sons to work in the vineyard. The ideal response would be for a son to both tell his father he would obey and also do it. Neither son attains this ideal. The second son says he will go but never does. This parable values action over verbiage. Therefore, it sides against the second son, saying that he did not obey his father’s request. The first son refuses to go, but later does. This is hardly what an ideal son should do. Nevertheless his action is deemed acceptable, because he did what his father wanted.
All too often we become discouraged because our efforts to love fall short of the ideal. We do not love our neighbor as our self. We chose to brood over injury and strike back in anger. We think of our own comfort and desires rather than the needs of others. These failures tempt us to disqualify ourselves from service. We presume that God wants perfect disciples. This parable corrects such high expectations. Imperfect servants are still called. Flawed disciples can still love. Laborers are needed, and sinners can apply. God is perfect, but God knows we are not. Jesus assures us that there is room for tax collections and prostitutes in God’s kingdom.
So before we presume that we cannot please God, before we give up on the ideal of loving our neighbor, listen to this parable. If a brash son can insult his father to his face and still find acceptance, then so can we.
OCTOBER 2011—Embracing the Best of Human Wisdom
We as Christians proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. He is for us Messiah and Lord. This makes his status unique. Sometimes it is assumed that if Jesus is unique, then his teaching must be also—different from all the instruction which came before it. A careful reading of the scriptures does not support this conclusion. Rather than setting Jesus apart from his contemporaries, his teaching reflects the wisdom of his time.
In Matthew 22:34-40 we hear a scholar of the law ask Jesus what is the greatest commandment. Jesus’ answer is not original. He unites two commands of the Torah. The first directs us to love God and is taken from Deuteronomy 6:5. This is the verse a devout Jew would recite every day. The second command directs us to love our neighbor and is taken from Leviticus 19:18. Loving our neighbor as our self is a rephrasing of the Golden Rule which Jesus teaches earlier in the Sermon on the Mount: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).
Jesus’ summary of the Law around the command to love our neighbor was not an unusual position. The great Jewish rabbi Hillel was once asked to teach the entire Law to a student as he stood on one foot. Hillel offered his own expression of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary on it.” A form of the Golden Rule can be found in other religious traditions. Both the Chinese sage, Confucius, and the Greek orator, Isocrates, taught it. Clearly, the centrality of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is not an original insight of Jesus.
Christians should be open to recognize that what Jesus taught as God’s will has also been recognized by other great religious figures and traditions. Paul’s advice in Philippians 4:6-9 encourages such openness. We are to learn from whatever is true, honorable, just, and pure.
Religions are not all the same. Jesus is our unique Lord. But even as we proclaim him, we should not be afraid to recognize how the content of his teaching is shared by others who do not accept Christ. Embracing such common human wisdom unites us to other people of good will and honors the God who has made us all.
NOVEMBER 2011—Mercy Without Co-dependency
No evangelist is more emphatic than Matthew in insisting that there will be consequences for those who do not follow God’s will. When Jesus returns in glory, those who have failed to do what God demands will be sorry. Matthew uses a phrase six times in his gospel to describe the fate of such slackers: “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” He uses it at the end of the parable of the talents (25:14-30) to indict the fearful servant who buried the talent entrusted to him. It is not words but actions which allow us to avoid tears and damage to our dentures. Early in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus asserts, “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21).
So what actions are required to avoid punishment and find life? Here Matthew offers one of the most memorable and powerful passages in the New Testament: the Last Judgment scene (Matt 25:31-46). Jesus comes as King and divides all of humanity into two groups, the just and the unjust. The just are those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and care for the sick and imprisoned. These simple actions “to the least of these brothers and sisters” are what assure eternal life.
From this vivid scene one might expect that the way to do the Father’s will is obvious: whenever anyone needs anything from us, we are to provide it. But Matthew knows that such a conclusion is incomplete. In Matthew 25:1-13 he presents us with a story which might well be read as a counterbalance to the Last Judgment scene. It is the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. When the bridegroom arrives and all the virgins must light their lamps, the foolish virgins are unprepared. They have no oil. They plead with the wise virgins to give them some of theirs. The wise virgins refuse, telling the foolish virgins that they are on their own. According to a simplistic reading of the Last Judgment scene, we would have expected the wise virgins to share. Would not giving some of their oil away qualify as caring for the least among us? This parable of the virgins argues against such a conclusion. The foolish virgins knew that they would need oil, yet they disregarded the necessity of procuring it. Caring for the least among us does not direct us to support the carelessness of others.
Matthew presents a complex and realistic description of what it means to do God’s will. Yes, we are to give of ourselves to the least among us, serving them as we would Jesus himself. But loving is not as simple as providing what others ask of us. True service does not enable co-dependency. Sometimes doing the Father’s will is telling others that we will not cover for their neglect and irresponsibility.
DECEMBER 2011—From Heaven and Earth: A Voice Cries Out!
The words from Isaiah in 40:1-5, 9-11 were originally addressed to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. God is speaking words of assurance: “Comfort, O comfort my people.” God intends to save Israel from captivity and return the exiles to their own land. Isaiah wished to give this prophecy the highest authority. Therefore, he situated God’s proclamation within a heavenly court. Drawing from the religious imagery which was used in Babylon to show the gods seated in council, Isaiah pictures the God of Israel as the supreme ruler surrounded by an entourage of heavenly beings who hear and ratify divine decisions. In time we have come to call these spiritual servants, “angels.”
Isaiah allows us to overhear the dialogue around God’s throne. Once God has expressed the intention to save Israel from exile, a voice cries out in affirmation, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” It is the voice of one of the members of the celestial assembly assenting to God’s decision. Just as Moses once led Israel through the wilderness to the promised land, God will soon travel a straight way in the wilderness, bringing Israel home. The angel’s voice assures us that nothing will hinder God’s movement. What is low will be raised up. What is high will be brought low. The very earth will be made level and smooth for God to pass.
The early church loved this passage from Isaiah. All four gospels associate the voice with John the Baptist (eg. Mark 1:1-8; John1:6-8, 19-28). The voice which once gave assent in the heavenly council is now heard on the banks of the Jordan. The angel’s cry is now a human voice which points to God’s chosen one. In a beautiful sweep of both text and history, the heavenly affirmation of God’s saving action has taken flesh in John, just as God’s Word has taken flesh in Jesus.
Early Christians were drawn to this passage because they found within it the ultimate assurance of God’s intention to save, an intention now made manifest in Christ. As we hear again these words of Isaiah and the gospel echoes of them, we too should take heart. Hope is a precarious reality in our world. The power of evil frequently seems to hold the upper hand. So often it appears that our families will never be reconciled, the poor will never be fed, wars will never end, the unborn will not be protected, and our fragile earth will continue to be exploited. We should listen to a voice which reveals another reality. God is coming to save us. God’s arrival is secure. God’s salvation has been announced in heaven and confirmed on earth. All voices are of one accord: nothing can stop God’s Advent.
JANUARY 2012—Questioning and Accepting God’s Call
Life is always changing. A date leads to a relationship, which develops into a marriage and a life together. A casual encounter results in the desire to become a doctor, a mother, or a musician. The death of a loved one from cancer leads to grief and then to a commitment to assist other cancer victims in defeating the disease. Whenever new beginnings emerge in life, people of faith are convinced that God is involved. Believers assert that the new directions in their lives are responses to God’s call.
The Bible is so convinced that God calls us that it has developed a specific literary structure to describe the experience. It is termed a “call narrative” and is found in two general forms. There is an immediate form in which the person called responds at once to God’s invitation. Mark 1:14-20 provides two examples of the immediate form, when Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James, and John. At Jesus’ invitation they immediately leave their fishing nets and follow him.
The second type of call narrative can be termed the complicated form. In this form the person called is confused or even objects to God’s invitation. He or she eventually accepts the call, but the response is complicated by human puzzlement and doubt. The complicated form is by far the most common type of call narrative in the Bible. It is found in the call of Moses (Ex 3:10—4:13), Jeremiah (Jer 1:4-8), Mary (Lk 1:31-34), Nathanael (Jn 1:44-46), and many others. The call of Samuel (1 Sam 3:3b-10, 19) is a complicated form. Samuel does not respond to God at once because he is confused, thinking that the voice which calls his name is that of the priest Eli.
The two types of call narrative are not opposed to each other. Each one reflects a possible way in which a divine call can come to us. Sometimes God presents us with a new opportunity and we know immediately it is right for us. There is no hesitation. We say “yes,” and we are changed forever. Other times the call is complicated by our questions, doubts, or objections. (Can God really be asking me to become a missionary in Africa? How can God expect me to reconcile with Uncle Louie!) The complicated call narrative assures us that we have the right to struggle with God’s invitation. We have permission to feel our way through the confusion and shock of what God is asking. The Bible tells us that it is acceptable to be bewildered, to assert that God’s invitation could never work, to argue that God should choose someone else. None of these responses is wrong or inadequate. In fact in the Bible most of those invited by God take the time to question and object. It often seems that challenging God’s wisdom is just part of the call.
FEBRUARY 2012—What God Decided in the Flood
The Bible often uses human characteristics to describe God. Even though we know that God is eternal and unchanging, biblical authors will frequently place God as a character within a story in order to communicate their message. This happens in the story of Noah where God struggles with the wickedness of humanity. God sends a great flood. But the story is not really about the destruction from the waters. It is about a decision by God—a decision never again to be a God who destroys. The story captures the moment when God becomes and will always remain a God who saves.
Genesis 9:8-15 expresses God’s resolve. The rainbow is set in the sky as a sign of God’s covenant with humanity never again to destroy the earth because of human sinfulness. This decision on God’s part is not occasioned by any change in humanity. Humans remain as weak and sinful as in the time before the flood. But God decides not to be ruled by human wickedness. God chooses to love and save despite the failure of humans to respond.
The story of Noah begins a clear strain within the Bible asserting God’s free choice to relate to us on the basis of divine love rather than our sin. Isaiah gives voice to God’s determination in 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25. Israel has burdened God with sins and offenses. But God will still forgive Israel for God’s own sake. God will blot out our sins not because we deserve forgiveness but simply because God is good and chooses to do so.
God’s sovereign decision to save us reaches fulfillment in Jesus. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 1:18-22. He tells the Corinthians that Christ does not waver. He is not alternately “yes” and “no.” Jesus is always “yes.” Jesus is the perfect expression of God’s resolute will to claim us as sons and daughters. God has acted. God has chosen. It is only up to us to ratify God’s decision, to voice our “Amen.”
God’s unwavering commitment should be a source of hope for us. When our life loses direction and good things begin to slip through our fingers, God remains our saving God. When our weakness causes us to sin and our pride leads us to abuse our gifts and those we love, God does not allow sinfulness to nullify our relationship. When loss, fear, or sickness lead us to doubt God’s care, God still stands steadfast at our side. We often change in the strength of our faith and devotion. God never changes in the resolve to love us. In the waters of the great flood God decided to be merciful and forgiving forever. Neither time nor sinfulness has swayed God’s determination. God’s mind is made up to save us. And what God decides will always be successful.
MARCH 2012—God and Evil
The Christian faith centers on a God who saves. Yet despite God’s power and goodness, evil continues to influence our lives. How are Christians to understand the presence of evil in a world which God controls? Our readings this month grapple with this issue.
Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18 is one of the most difficult passages in the Bible. God commands Abraham to kill his son Isaac as a burnt offering. We immediately recoil at this demand. What kind of a God would request the death of an innocent boy? To make sense of the narrative we must realize that it was written in a time when human sacrifice could still be imagined as a religious act. In this context the narrative of Abraham is designed to refute such a practice. It asserts that the God of Israel has no desire for an offering of human blood. The passage begins by telling us that God was “testing” Abraham. In this way it is clear from the start that God has no intention of allowing harm to come to Isaac. As Abraham raises the knife to kill his son, God sends an angel to prevent the deadly act.
We are, of course, distracted by the pain of Abraham who does not know God’s purpose until the last moment. But the point of the narrative is to assure us that God is not the cause of evil. It may at times seem to us (as it did to Abraham in the story) that God is the source of violence and death in our lives. But this story insists that God’s intention is not to end life but to save it.
The Gospel of John carries us a step further. John 12:20-33 is a brief dialogue in which Jesus struggles with his approaching death. As Jesus admits that his soul is troubled, he offers an image: when the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it produces much fruit. Without explaining the source of evil, this passage assures us that good can come from it. As is most clear in Jesus’ own passion, God is perfectly capable of drawing salvation from injustice and death.
Despite the effort and wisdom of the greatest philosophers and theologians, the presence of evil in God’s good creation cannot be explained. Yet the insights from this month’s scriptures can dispel at least some of the darkness. When we face the suffering of the innocent, the unjust death of a good person, or the sudden loss of a friend, we must keep two truths in mind. God is not the source of evil, and God can draw goodness out of the deepest night. Like Abraham we must come to see that God is the God of life not death. Like Jesus we must believe that out of death new life can come.
HOLY WEEK 2012—Two Views of the Last Supper
The Christian tradition is unanimous in the conviction that Jesus shared a final meal with his disciples before he suffered. Both the account of Mark (14:10-26) and that of John (13:1-38) emphasize an essential aspect of the gospel message.
In Mark’s story of the Last Supper Jesus associates bread and wine with his passion. In Jesus’ words, the cup of wine which is shared is “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” Just as blood sealed the Jewish covenant at Sinai, Jesus’ blood seals his commitment to us. In the Eucharist, Christians continue to celebrate a meal of bread and wine in Jesus’ name in which they recognize his presence with them. Mark, however, is very clear that the fullness of the Last Supper is yet to come. Jesus says that he will never again drink from the fruit of the vine until that day when he drinks it new in the Kingdom of God. Thus our covenant sealed in Christ’s blood will not be complete until that day when God’s purposes are fully accomplished. The Eucharist, then, not only looks backward to the Last Supper but forward to the Kingdom of God.
In John’s account of the Last Supper (unlike Mark, Matthew, and Luke) there is no mention of Jesus’ words concerning the bread and wine. This does not indicate that John is ignorant of the new relationship which emerges from Jesus’ death and resurrection. Rather he uses the Last Supper to clarify how we as disciples must act in order to live out that relationship. In John’s account, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. This action symbolizes Jesus’ intention to love his disciples “to the end.” The Greek phrase used here carries two senses: that Jesus loved his disciples to the end of his life and that Jesus loved them in a way which surpasses all possible loving. Moreover, those who would share in Jesus’ love are called to imitate such loving. John emphasizes how far Jesus’ loving extends. He specifically tells us that Jesus knew that Judas would betray him. Yet Jesus does not refrain from washing Judas’ feet. Thus those who would imitate Jesus’ love must be willing to love and serve even their enemies.
These two versions of the Last Supper convey a powerful message. Yes, we are to rejoice in gift of the Eucharist which unites us to Christ. But each time we share the meal which Jesus has left us, we are to remember that the work of Jesus will not be completed until we reach God’s Kingdom and that we who eat his body and drink his blood must be committed to build that Kingdom though our acts of sacrificial love.
APRIL 2012—Resurrection Affirms Creation
Christians believe that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead and that we who believe in him will also be bodily raised. The Apostles’ Creed states this strongly: “I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” It is impossible to imagine what resurrected bodies will be like. They will be different from our present bodies, no longer limited by sickness, aging, or death. Yet the belief in bodily resurrection insists that our resurrected bodies will still in some sense be physical, still somehow connected to the material world.
Our scriptures struggle to present the new aspects of Jesus’ resurrected body. After the resurrection, Jesus’ body is different. In John 20:19-31 we are told that Jesus can pass through locked doors to speak to his disciples. Yet it is also clear that Jesus’ resurrected state is not a purely spiritual one. In Luke 24:35-48, Jesus invites the disciples to touch him and eats a piece of fish in their presence. Jesus’ body is unlike our physical bodies and yet still somehow connected to the physical world. N. T. Wright has suggested that we might use the world “transphysical” to name this unimaginable existence.
How did Christianity come to the unusual belief in bodily resurrection? The question can be answered both historically and theologically. Historically, followers of Jesus accepted Jesus’ resurrection because they were Jewish. In the ancient world only Jews believed in a bodily resurrection. The common Greek notion was that the body was superfluous and would simply decay. Only the soul would survive. But about 200 years before Jesus’ birth, during terrible persecution by the Greek tyrant, Antiochus IV, most Jews began to believe that God would raise the just up bodily on the last day. This belief in resurrection was championed by the Pharisees.
This historical development flowed from theological conviction. Jews were certain that God was both good and faithful. Therefore, if God had created the human body, they knew that God would never abandon it. If God made humans physical, then the physical would have a part to play in the world to come. Unlike the Greeks who saw the material world as insignificant, Jews saw the material world as God’s good creation. Thus all created things, including the human body, would remain valuable to God. Physical bodies might be transformed, but they would never be discarded.
We should appreciate the theological significance of resurrection. Resurrection not only promises us a life after death. It affirms the goodness of God’s creation. As we shout “Alleluia,” we not only assert that we will live forever. We also believe that all that God has made will somehow share in the life to come.
MAY 2012—The Dance of Love
When we compare passages from Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John to sections from the First Letter of John, they create an antiphonal interplay of Johannine reflection. With one voice giving way to another, these varying notes create a sacred melody or dance. And when the dance is examined, it is clearly a dance of love. The steps of the dance follow a divine pattern: from God, through us, to others.
The music is initiated by God, for God is the origin of all good. In 1 John 4:7-10, the author John reveals that the source of love resides in God from all eternity: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.” John 15:9-17 makes it clear that our relationship with Jesus is not of our own making: “You did not chose me but I chose you.” God begins the dance, choosing freely to love us and call us into union with God’s very self.
This call results in remarkable intimacy. Through God’s initiative we share in God’s own life. Our closeness to God is compared to the closeness of Jesus with the Father. In John 17:11b-19 Jesus prays that we might be one as he and the Father are one. In John 15:1-8 Jesus describes our shared life with him through the image of the vine and the branches. God’s love has begun a relationship of such nearness that it can be described as the life of a single organism. Again and again we hear Jesus inviting us “to remain” in such love. “Remaining” is John’s term for claiming our new status as children of God and living out our union with Father, Son, and Spirit.
But the music has not yet ended. Remaining in God’s love is not standing still. The love which we have received and in which we live must be extended. God’s gift leads to action. In John 15:1-17 Jesus commands us “to love one another as I have loved you.” in 1 John 4:11-16 we are told, “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” God’s love is not our private possession. It is not to be hoarded but passed on. It is only when we reach out to those around us in love that God’s will is accomplished. Only then does the melody end and is the dance complete.
These passages draw us into a symphony of love. Beginning in the depths of God’s heart, such love embraces us in a divine intimacy beyond every expectation and enables us to reach out in compassion and service to others. This is the wonder of our existence. This is our gift and obligation.
Let the dance begin!
JUNE 2012—Power in Weakness
We are God’s own. That identity imparts to us both dignity and glory. Yet we remain weak and sinful creatures who can only partially fulfill our mission. Therefore, at the heart of the Christian gospel is the mystery that our success is connected to our weakness, that our power depends on God’s grace.
In Romans 8:14-17 St. Paul reminds us of our dignity. We are children of God, led by the Spirit, and heirs to eternal glory. Acts 13:22-26 asserts that even one as great as John was not worthy to unfasten the sandals of the Messiah. Somehow in God’s plan, worthiness is tied to lowliness and greatness to humility.
This paradox will be beautifully expressed in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:26-34). This parable defines Jesus’ understanding of greatness. Jesus bases his image on that of Ezekiel 17:22-24. Ezekiel describes greatness in the most exalted of terms. God’s people will be a majestic cedar growing on a lofty mountain. Jesus takes Ezekiel’s image and intentionally shifts it. God’s people will not be a lofty cedar but a mustard plant. The difference between the two plants is staggering. The cedar was the most admired tree of antiquity. It grows to 100 feet in height with a 40-foot diameter. Its wood was used in the construction of the Solomon’s temple. By contrast the mustard pant is an annual shrub whose maximum height is 10 feet. It is commonly found throughout Palestine, drawing little attention to itself. Even though Jesus says that the birds make nests in its branches, this is a stretch. Most birds would prefer a more sturdy environment. When we realized the simple botanical differences between these two plants, the import of Jesus’ message becomes clear.
Power in God’s kingdom is not power as commonly perceived. God’s glory is not to be limited to astounding displays and earth-shattering events. It extends beyond those people who the world exalts and those places to which pilgrimages are made. It displays itself in common things: in faithful marriages, in honest friendships, in simple sacrifice. God’s power is not rare but universal, permeating every time and place. It buds forth in flawed ministers and imperfect saints, beginning as small as a mustard seed and growing to support all who encircle it and seek rest in its shade.
Power is seductive. This is why Jesus demands that God’s power be exercised by the weak and humble. There is a addictive rush in imaging ourselves as mighty cedars of God’s will, standing tall on a mountain. But Jesus assures us that the Kingdom of God will appear when we assume our place as ordinary mustard shrubs, living and serving in our own backyard.
JULY 2012—Accepting the Miracles of Jesus
Jesus is known for his miracles. John 6:1-15 relates how Jesus fed a crowd of five thousand people with five barely loaves and two fish. Mark will present us with two miracles in a pattern particularly favored by him (5:21-43). Mark often inserts one story into the middle of another. This technique allows the evangelist to draw parallels between the two accounts which enhance them both.
This gospel begins with Jairus asking Jesus to come and heal his daughter. While Jesus is on the way to Jairus’ house, a woman afflicted with hemorrhages touches him and is healed. Then the story continues with Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead. Mark masterfully ties together the condition of the two women who benefit from Jesus’ power. Both are referred to as “daughter.” The older woman has been suffering from hemorrhages for “for twelve years,” and the little girl is “twelve years of age.” Both women are unable to bring forth life from their wombs—one because of her sickness, the other because she has died before reaching the age of childbearing. By healing them both, Jesus restores their capacities to become mothers and displays his command over the forces of life.
Yet Mark is not satisfied only to extol the authority of Jesus. He carefully insists on the necessity of faith. Jesus praises the faith of the woman who sought him out in the crowd and encourages Jairus to believe his daughter would live. The gospel insists that miracles are more than divine power. They also require human acceptance. This truth is presented forcibly in Mark 6:1-6, when Jesus is unable to perform any miracle in his hometown because the people of Nazareth lack faith in him.
The real challenge, of course, is not for the citizens of Nazareth but for us. How open are we to miracles in our own lives? We cannot deny the presence of evil in our world. We must cope with injustice, violence, sickness, and death. Yet wise men and women refuse to allow the things which are wrong with the world blind them to the signs of God’s presence within it. When we realize we have spent forty years of life-giving marriage with a spouse whom we met on a blind date, when our son in high school finally settles into a group of friends after years of feeling excluded, when we hold a newly born daughter or granddaughter in our arms and recognize the perfection of her tiny fingers, should we not pause and recognize God’s loving power at work? God is always moving among us with acts of power. But it is only when we accept those actions with faith that they become miracles.
AUGUST 2012—Today’s Bread; Hard Bread
Bread and other kinds of food are regularly used in both the Old and New Testaments to represent the ways by which God sustains us. Elijah is nourished physically and emotionally by the food God provides (1 Kings 19:4-8). Those who partake in the feast which Wisdom prepares are sustained morally and intellectually (Prov 9:1-6). Jesus manifests himself as the living Bread which has come down from heaven. He gives us life through his teaching and the gift of very flesh (John 6:51-58). Since bread is so clearly a sign of God’s nourishment, it is important to consider how such a gift is offered. God gives us today’s bread and sometimes hard bread.
Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15 describes how God fed Israel in the desert. Each morning when the dew evaporated, the Israelites found fine flakes of manna on the ground to eat. An essential quality of manna was that it did not last. Anyone who tried to keep today’s manna for tomorrow found that it grew foul and inedible (Exodus 16:19-20). Manna speaks to our own experience. When God provides us with an opportunity to grow, repent, or celebrate, it is important to seize it. We should not presume that the same opportunity will be available tomorrow. God gives us present nourishment. God’s bread cannot be horded. It is to be eaten today.
In John 6:60-69 many disciples leave Jesus’ company because his teaching is difficult to accept. His bread is hard. Sometimes the sustenance God offers us is not what we expect or prefer. Sometimes today’s nourishment is the opportunity to confront someone who is out of line or reconcile with an enemy. Sometimes God wants to feed us by asking us to face a flaw in ourselves or deal with a problem in our family. The bread God offers can be dry and difficult to eat. In those circumstances, Peter speaks for us all, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” We might not like the bread God offers, but it is still for our good. Even when the bread we are given is hard, it is still our sustenance.
People of faith believe that God is always guiding and sustaining us. When the morning dew evaporates and we see the bread God has left for us today, it is important to trust. Today’s bread is a unique gift, suited for our present circumstances. It will not keep for tomorrow. Now is the time to eat it. And when we realize that today’s bread is dry and will require effort to chew and courage to swallow, remember from whose hand it comes. The God who feeds us is our Savior. The nourishment God offers is for our good. Even hard bread leads to life.
SEPTEMBER 2012—Ritual Versus Moral Practice
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 can be easily misunderstood. Jesus is debating the Pharisees and scribes. But how are we to understand the sides of the argument? A cursory reading would suggest that the Pharisees were interested in ritual practices such as washing their hands. In contrast, Jesus seems to be dismissing these concerns as unimportant compared to the moral requirements to avoid unchastity, theft, murder and the other evils listed at the end of the passage. When this understanding is adopted, it can quickly devolve into the presumption that Judaism (here represented by the Pharisees) was a shallow religion focused on insignificant ritual practices and that Jesus came to replace that understanding with the obligation to follow a higher moral code.
Such a reading of the gospel is both false and dangerous. Judaism at the time of Jesus did include a number of ritual practices. Some Jewish groups probably did consider it ritually important to wash their hands. But most religions have ritual expectations. We should no more criticize the Pharisees for washing their hands than expect to be criticized ourselves for making the Sign of the Cross. There is nothing wrong with ritual practices. A distortion, however, can occur when ritual directives are seen as the whole of religion. But there is no indication that Judaism at the time of Jesus fostered such a perspective. It followed various rituals along with the moral directives of the law.
Of course, as in every religion, there could have been some Jews who over-emphasized ritual concerns, and it may be to such believers that Jesus addressed his objections in today’s gospel. But as a whole Judaism did not lose its focus on moral responsibility even as it followed ritual practices. All Jews, including the Pharisees, would be fully committed to avoiding the evil acts which Jesus lists at the end of the gospel. Those evils are strongly rejected in many Jewish sources.
In our preaching and teaching, it is important not to pit Jewish ritual practices and the moral directives of Jesus against each other. We should recognize that the Letter of James (2:1-5) asserts that God has special care for the poor because that is the belief of the Jewish scriptures (cf. 1 Samuel 2:8). Remembering that in the ancient world children were seen as marginalized members of society, we should note that when Jesus instructs his disciples to welcome the child whom he places in their midst (Mark 9:30-37), he is acting out the directives of Deuteronomy 10:18 to care for the widow and the orphan.
As followers of Jesus, we have an obligation to understand Judaism in a way which is accurate and fair. Far from seeing Judaism as a religion of petty ritual practices, we should acknowledge it as the source from which the moral teachings of Jesus flow.
OCTOBER 2012—The Risk of Letting Go
Mark 10:46-52 is the story of the blind beggar, Bartimaeus. Mark 10:17-30 is that of the rich young man. Both characters are asked to change their present life. One rises successfully to the challenge. The other walks away dejected.
When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by, he decides that he wants to see. His decision indicates his willingness to let go of his present life and income. The gospel tells us that Bartimaeus was begging on the road outside of Jericho. It was an ideal location, because all the pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem would have to pass by him. His blindness was an advantage, because it moved those going up for the Jewish feasts to pity him. If he could see, Bartimaeus would have to find new work, and there would be some doubt whether he could maintain his standard of living. Yet Bartimaeus decides it is worth the risk. He calls out to Jesus, receives his sight, and follows Jesus—now as a disciple on the way to a new life.
The rich young man decides differently. There is no doubt he is sincere and truly desires eternal life. Jesus clearly wants to grant it. When the gospel tells us that Jesus “loved him,” this is the only time in the synoptic gospels when Jesus is said to love anyone. Yet when Jesus invites him to become his disciple, the young man does not accept. Following Jesus would involve joining his itinerate and homeless ministry throughout the towns of Galilee. The rich man would have to leave the comforts of his present life behind. He is unwilling to risk that following Jesus would be worth it.
We all have a certain life and the blessings which come with it. Our lives may not be perfect, but they are ours. Yet at any given time God can call us to more. That call may well involve letting go of what we already have. We, of course, want to have more without letting go. We want to keep our family, work, opportunities, and friends just as they are and accept the new gift Jesus wants to give us. The scriptures warn us that this is often not possible. We must risk letting go of the good thing we have in order to receive the better thing Jesus offers.
Bartimaeus was willing to leave his present life behind to follow Jesus. The rich young man was not. Unwillingness to let go of what we presently possess assures that we will never be as happy or alive as God wants us to be. That is why it is worth the risk to let go and walk in joy with Bartimaeus rather than to hold on and join our sadness to that of the rich young man.
NOVEMBER 2012—Locating the Kingdom of Christ
The mission of Jesus is to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. But where do we imagine that kingdom to be located? Jesus’ words to Pilate in John 18:33b-37 seem to indicate that Jesus envisions an otherworldly place: “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” Most people hearing these words suppose that Jesus was pointing to a non-material, heavenly kingdom. With this understanding, the goal of the Christian life becomes an escape from our present world and a refuge in spiritual realms.
There is good reason, however, to believe that Jesus has no such otherworldly kingdom in mind. When he says that his kingdom does not belong to this world, he is indicating that his rule will not tolerate the sin and evil which characterize much of our present experience. Jesus’ purpose, however, is not to abandon this world but to save it. He will do this by eliminating from creation every force which is opposed to God’s will. Jesus’ statement to Pilate, then, does not negate the world in which we live. This world cannot be discarded. Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world because he announces the transformation of this world into a new one.
When we understand Christ’s kingdom in this sense, our mission is not to escape from the present world but to change it. This transformation can only come about through God’s action. It will not be complete until Christ returns in glory. But we are able to hasten its arrival by acting in accordance with God’s grace and working against every evil as we await Christ’s final victory. Far from abandoning the present world, we are to infuse it with the love and presence of Christ.
To carry out our mission we must first recognize where evil has taken root. We find Jesus doing this in Mark 12:41-44. He sees a widow placing her last two coins into the temple treasury, and he calls her action to the attention of his disciples. Even though most people read Jesus’ words as praise for the widow, it is more consistent with the flow of Mark’s gospel to understand them as a lament. Jesus decries the manner in which this poor widow has been manipulated by the temple leaders. Playing upon her religious sympathies, they have used their position to exploit her for money rather than serve her in her need. As followers of Jesus we begin to promote Christ’s Kingdom when we identify the ways in which power and privilege oppress the most vulnerable among us.
Christ is our King. His kingdom, then, becomes our enterprise. We are called to foster his kingdom by opposing every injustice and protecting every widow. His kingdom does not belong to this world, but to the new world which we can share in building.
DECEMBER 2012—Grace Precedes Action
John the Baptist plays a huge role in the New Testament. Historically John’s most significant action was to baptize Jesus. The Gospel of Mark reports this plainly: “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (1:9). But this fact was disturbing to the other evangelists. They were fearful that some readers might conclude that John was greater than Jesus. After all, would not the greater baptize the lesser? Because of this concern, in Matthew (3:14) John asks Jesus to baptize him. Luke (3:21) says that Jesus was baptized but does not tell us by whom. The Gospel of John makes no mention of Jesus’ baptism.
It is Luke, however, who devises the most creative way to prevent any misunderstanding about Jesus’ superiority. In 1:39-45 he relates the beautiful story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. This scene does more than relate the respect and love of two pregnant women. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting she is filled with the Holy Spirit and her child (John the Baptist) leaps in her womb. Why is Luke reporting this pre-natal jump of the Baptist? A clue is given in Luke 3:10-18 where the adult John tells the people that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is the first time John and Jesus come together, although they are still in their mothers’ wombs. In this meeting John’s leap is the indication that he has received the Holy Spirit which Jesus imparts. Luke forestalls any impression that John is greater than Jesus. Before John baptizes Jesus with water in the Jordon, Jesus has baptized John with the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb.
Seen from this perspective, Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth is God’s way of preparing John for his vocation. Before he is born, he receives the Spirit who will guide his ministry. The same is true for us. While we were still in our mothers’ wombs, God formed us with the personality and gifts which would shape our lives. God foresees all things. Therefore, we should trust that the talents God has given us will be sufficient for our needs. When we face a crisis in our family, it is easy to feel helpless. It is then we must examine our gifts and ask how, with God’s help, we can encourage healing. When we must deal with a crucial decision at school or work, it may seem we are without resources. It is then we must believe that we have already been blessed with the insight we will need to work things out.
Grace precedes action. If Jesus empowered John before he was born, he has not left us lacking in necessary gifts. We must trust that when action is demanded, the graced abilities which are already ours will support and build our lives.